Every season has its own storyline. From players injured to record-breaking seasons. And while the continued talk surrounding the Washington Capitals has always been Alexander Ovechkin and his record-breaking pace for the NHL’s all-time goals mark, their season didn’t get off to the greatest start.
The in-between may have been more promising, but the first-round exit at the hands of the Boston Bruins in five games seems almost perfect in a storyline that opened the way that the Capitals’ did.
Capitals’ Offseason Hits and Misses
The Capitals season started with some promising moves in the offseason. Out were Travis Boyd, Radko Gudas, Ilya Kovalchuk and long-time goalie Braden Holtby and in came Henrik Lundqvist, Zdeno Chara, Conor Sheary and, eventually, Craig Anderson. But from there, some of the season headlines hurt the team – including their new acquisitions.
Lundqvist, prior to the season, was placed on long-term injury reserve (LTIR) after requiring surgery on his heart. That, however, opened the door for both Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek who both ran with the opportunity. As mentioned, the Capitals eventually added Craig Anderson to fill that third spot in the depth chart, but he barely played through the season, with just four games to show for it.
Closing in on the trade deadline, the Capitals also moved Richard Panik and Jakub Vrana – along with two picks – to acquire Anthony Mantha from the Detroit Red Wings who had eight points in 14 games after coming over. They also added Michael Raffl from Philadelphia for a fifth-round pick in 2021. Raffl added three points of his own to end the regular season.
There were a number of smaller adds – including some players who made their NHL debuts – such as Connor McMichael – but altogether the Capitals saw 32 players suit up for them this season, including three goaltenders in Samsonov, Vanecek and Anderson.
Capitals’ Season Anything But Upsetting
The season itself didn’t turn out poorly for the Capitals, who finished second in the NHL’s East Division behind their long-time rivals the Pittsburgh Penguins. In fact, they finished the season 36-15-5 in 56 games for 77 points and finished with a plus-28 goal differential.
Their year was still littered with questionable storylines, from Tom Wilson’s seven-game suspension to his later incidents involving the New York Rangers, to the the gathering involving Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and two others in the hotel room breaking the NHL’s COVID protocols. Still the team managed to secure themselves a playoff spot.
In doing so, Nicklas Backstrom led the team with 53 points in 55 games. Ovechkin continued his torrid goal-scoring pace with 24 in 45 games and now sits just 164 goals back of Wayne Gretzky’s all-time record (894) and sixth all-time.
As for their goaltending, Vanecek really stole the show. He played 37 games for the Capitals with a 21-10-4 record, a 2.69 goals against average (GAA) and .908 save percentage (SV%) in his rookie season. Samsonov wasn’t far behind with a 13-4-1 record, a 2.69 GAA and a .902 SV%, proving that the Capitals were in a good place to move on from Holtby prior to the year.
However, unlike their playoff run from 2018 that led them to a Stanley Cup win, the Capitals found themselves against a tough playoff opponent in this year’s first round – in the form of the Bruins, Chara’s ex-comrades.
Capitals’ Postseason Run Short-Lived
It took the experienced Bruins just five games to dispose of the Capitals in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Though the Bruins aren’t leave the first-round unscathed. With the bad blood already brewing between these teams – thanks to Wilson’s earlier suspension in the season for his hit on Brandon Carlo – this series was set up perfect when it came to the physical aspect of the game.
In the series, the Bruins lost both Jeremy Lauzon and Kevan Miller – the latter exiting Game 4 after taking a hit in the middle of the ice. It was a highly penalized series with both teams exiting the five-game set with 52 penalty minutes apiece. However, the Capitals were only able to capitalize on three power play opportunities throughout the first round. Easily one of the biggest takeaways from their lack of production.
Still, Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie led the way offensively with four points apiece, while Kuznetsov was held pointless in his three games played in the series. Questions will certainly surface as to his future with the team.
The injury to Vanecek in Game 1 didn’t help the Capitals in their quest for another long playoff run. Still, while the Bruins finished slightly lower in the standings than the Capitals, the boys from Boston remain a team that most don’t like to see come playoff time.
As for Anderson and Samsonov, their numbers weren’t horrible. Anderson finished with a 1-1 record, a 2.67 GAA and .929 SV%, while Samsonov didn’t fair as well with a 0-3 record, a 2.99 GAA and .899 SV% in his three games played.
All in all, it was a hard fought first round – even if it did only last five games. The Bruins could be without Lauzon and Miller moving forward. While the Capitals will have a chance to head home and reevaluate what’s next.
Laid to Rest – Final Thoughts
The Lundqvist trade hurt in the early going. The Wilson distraction could’ve played a role as well. Still, the Capitals should come away from this shortened season with their heads held high. They finished second in a relatively tough division and fought hard against a foe that is known for their playoff success.
As for Kuznetsov, his future with the team could be up in the air as mentioned. But the focus will be on Ovechkin, his pending free agency and what the team will need to do to get him locked up long-term again – with his chase of Gretzky’s record a constant talking point. Though, Ovechkin does hope to have a deal in place soon.
As for Lundqvist – he’s likely not done. But does he fit in with Washington next year with Samsonov and Vanecek leading the charge? Likely not. So the Caps could have some money to spend as the summer goes on.
For now, the Bruins advance and for the Capitals fans out there – rest in passion and good luck in 2021-22.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.